A Delicate Truth by John le Carré
My rating: ★★★★☆
Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.
The Basics: A charismatic Foreign Office minister recruits an assuming civil servant to be his eyes and ears for a covert operation in Gibraltar named Wildfire. After apparent success, a new Private Secretary, Toby Bell, to the same Government minister becomes suspicious of his master’s highly secretive associations with private security firms & past scandal. Bell is then drawn into a plot to uncover the truth behind Wildfire and what truly happened on the Rock of Gibraltar.
In-depth: Gibraltar was a little while ago all over the news after the triggering of Article 50 in the UK. So it was a happy coincidence when I started my latest venture into le Carré’s canon based on events there.
A Delicate Truth sees a Foreign Office civil servant, Christoper Probyn, recruited for a covert operation to lift a wanted jihadist from Gibraltar. This is done by his boss, Foriegn Office Minister Fergus Quinn. A fiery and charismatic Scot with connections to wealthly, private security companies.
Althought completely inexperienced in any military or field work, Probyn is tasked with feeding back eye witness accounts to help the Minister’s decision making.
Operation Wildfire is told from Probyn’s viewpoint. He listens into a disagreement in the command chain. This is between a soldier leading the British side of the operation, Jeb, and the Minister and his shadowy adviser Jay Crispin, over whether to proceed with the mission. Probyn is whisked away after the operation is apparently completed. Informed of an uncalculated success, Probyn reaps the rewards of a knighthood. As well as the privilege of a plush Caribbean Ambassadorship.
Fast forward three years and Minister Fergus Quinn is still in the Foreign Office. But now with a new Private Secretary, Toby Bell.
Toby becomes alienated and suspicious at the minister’s secretive behaviour. This is down to his past association and scandal with Jay Crispin who runs a private security firm. Breaking his civil service oath, Toby covertly records a meeting between Quinn, Crispin and Jeb. He listens in to them discussing Operation Wildfire.
Meanwhile retired Sir Christopher Probyn enjoys an idyllic, family life in Cornwall. This is rudely interrupted by a shock visit from Jeb from Operation Wildfire. Jeb alleges that the operation was not a success. The target was not lifted, and an innocent mother and child were accidentally killed leading to a cover up.
Probyn is initially sceptical of this revelation from a clearly disturbed Jeb. Yet he begins to question the operation. This leads to the dawning of his career, ambassadorship and knighthood being part of the cover up.
After reaching out to the dangerous Crispin, friend and advisor to his Minister, Probyn remains unconvinced by his reassurances. Particularly that Wildfire was a success and Jeb a mere bitter ex-forces drunkard. Instead Probyn decides to meet with Jeb again to put together a formal dossier on Wildfire to take to his former Foreign Office colleagues.
But Jeb does not turn up to his meeting Probyn, strange for a man so passionate for revealing the truth. Probyn instead reaches out to Toby Bell, his replacement as Secretary to the Minister responsible for Wildfire, for help. This is where Toby Bell and Probyn come into contact. The past clashes with the present, with consequences that threaten to get out of control.
Firstly, Jeb is found murdered. This appears a cover up, as a tragic suicide of a former serviceman, rather than the sinister assassination Probyn and Bell fear. In shock, Probyn visits the Foreign Office with his part of the Wildfire dossier including Jeb’s allegations of foul play. This is met with a very cold reception. Along with the threat of an expensive, life ruining and secret internal trial.
Meanwhile Bell allies himself with Probyn’s daughter Emily. They reach out to the former military colleagues of Jeb’s who were also involved in Wildfire. One former comrade of Jeb’s (‘Shorty’) is tracked down, but is actually part of the elusive Crispin’s private security firm.
Convinced he can flip ‘Shorty’ with the memory of Jeb and military honour, Toby meets him. But Bell is quickly abducted and taken to Crispin in his glistening, corporate HQ. Offered a similar deal to Shorty, to be recruited by Crispin at great financial reward for his silence on Wildfire, Toby refuses.
Returning home, Toby is then ambushed and beaten half to death by unidentified goons. Emily Probyn rescue Toby and the pair flee to a internet café. Here Toby emails copies of Kit Probyn’s damning Wildfire dossier to several national newspapers. A deliciously abrupt conclusion hears the sounds of sirens approaching the café.
An interesting aspect of this novel is how it’s two central characters (Kit Probyn and Toby Bell) reflect the author’s own life. Probyn is the retired master in Cornwall seemingly with everything, much like the author now. Bell the young, rising star of the civil service which le Carré saw himself as at an earlier point in his life. As always with le Carré, his excellent fiction mixes deeply with the non-fiction of his life.
Thank you for reading. Is this your favourite le Carré novel or is it another one? Please leave your comment below.